Peak performances

Four of last year's trailblazers return this year, having had another solid 12 months of peak performances and high points. Here, a look at the past year for Nancy Dubuc, David Zaslav, Mark Burnett and Thom Beers.
January 1, 2012


As one of realscreen’s picks for last year’s Trailblazers report, Dubuc, president and general manager for A+E Networks’ History and Lifetime brands, summed up company philosophy like so: “One of our favorite phrases here is that we’re in the business of ‘best year ever.’” Thus, she can’t be disappointed with the results of 2011, which saw History climb into the top five in primetime among all U.S. cable networks – up from number eight last year. The net saw such recent hits as Pawn Stars, American Pickers and Swamp People remain strong, while other programs such as the Emmy-winning Gettysburg and its first competition series, Top Shot, performed well.

2011 did present challenges, with the decision to turf History’s first foray into scripted programming, the miniseries The Kennedys, generating chatter in the early part of the year (the project aired on Reelz Channel in early April). Elsewhere, Nielsen’s year-end numbers saw Lifetime down 11% from 2010 in the adults 18-49 demographic.

Still, History’s ongoing momentum remains a major story, and programming announced for next year, including a Pawn Stars spin-off dubbed Cajun Pawn Stars, and another move into scripted via the Kevin Costner vehicle Hatfield and McCoys, are bound to get buzz. And look for a Lifetime rebrand to intensify in 2012: at last summer’s Factual Entertainment Forum presented by realscreen, Dubuc said the female-skewing net’s makeover was “still in its infancy” at that point, but she firmly believed in Lifetime’s potential – through its mix of movies, drama and unscripted – to be a “triple threat.”

“Even today when you have a network that’s as on fire as History is, I’d say the lion’s share of our meetings are all about what’s next – how are we going to do more,” she said last year. Odds are not much has changed since then. BW


Discovery Communications has come a long way from the launch of its inaugural Discovery Channel in 1985. The company now has more than 1.5 billion subscribers in 210 territories worldwide, with some 36 businesses and brands in its portfolio.

As such, CEO David Zaslav’s key achievement in 2011 has been in steering this massive organization, and keeping the train planted firmly on the track, as it continues to grow across the globe. While its U.S. ratings gains in 2011 have not been as notable as some of its cable competitors (with the exception of ID), its international expansion has been considerable – the completion of TLC’s international roll-out and the meeting of its 100 million household target last year being particularly noteworthy.

And, while the efforts are still nascent, Zaslav does deserve credit from the factual community for Discovery Communications’ newest joint venture channels – 3net and OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network– as well as for the new male-skewing channel Velocity, a rebrand from Discovery HD Theater.

While the JV nets are still undoubtedly finding their feet, they have nevertheless become welcome new homes for producers. OWN, in particular, has given a much-needed presence on U.S. TV to the serious feature-length doc via its ‘Documentary Club’ strand, as well as another avenue for female-skewing reality series.

All of this has been carried out with Discovery Communications still bringing in considerable money – it most recently recorded a Q2 profit of US$254 million, up 20% on the year-ago period, and no mean feat in a still rough economy.

For 2012, the firm’s key objectives will be to make gains in the ratings of its domestic portfolio while maintaining its impressive international expansion. AB


A quick glance at our informal readers’ survey at the close of this issue reveals that unscripted TV’s king of testosterone TV, Original Productions’ president and exec producer Thom Beers, has caught lightning in a bottle once more with A&E’s Storage Wars.

Several of our participants in our year-end round-up named the program as their favorite factual series of the past year, and the numbers show that many Americans feel the same way: Storage Wars is the network’s top-rated non-fiction show, with its second season premiere in July setting a ratings record for the net, bringing in 5.1 million total viewers.

Also on the Storage Wars front, a spin-off series, Storage Wars: Texas, premiered in early December and made a similar splash, pulling in 4.1 million total viewers and becoming the highest-rated original series launch on the net to date.

This past year also saw one of Beers’ other big series, Discovery’s Deadliest Catch, snare four Emmys, including one for outstanding reality series, and nods for cinematography, picture editing and sound mixing.

While not everything Beers touched reeled in Deadliest Catch-sized ratings in 2011, the success of Storage Wars and its offspring proves that Beers and company still have the touch when it comes to gritty-yet-engrossing factual entertainment. “I’m pretty good at sensing what’s out there and what people are thinking about,” he told us last year, and we’re interested to see what that sixth sense picks up on for the year ahead, especially if it involves an idea he was “messing around” with last year – a combination of Las Vegas and rollerball. BW


Just prior to the debut of singing competition series The Voice on NBC, pundits expressed their skepticism that another talent series could take on the genre’s ratings juggernaut, American Idol, which was beginning to see its own ratings erode. But the April debut of the series, produced by Mark Burnett and Talpa Media, silenced the naysayers, emerging as the broadcast network’s breakthrough hit of 2011.

Besides another season of The Voice, Burnett, a self-avowed fan of epic storytelling, is taking on an ambitious 10-hour miniseries for History based on the Bible. Chatting with realscreen for last year’s Trailblazers report, Burnett alluded to the project, which he’s producing with wife Roma Downey, as his “dream project… probably one of the biggest things I’ve ever done.” Five two-hour episodes will tackle in docudrama form the biggest biblical stories. Work on the series is expected to last through 2012, with the project currently slated for 2013. He has big hopes for the series, telling the New York Times that he thinks it will “have the biggest audience History has ever had.” Perhaps he has friends in really, really high places.

Burnett also took steps to blaze trails in multi-platform programming in 2011. Earlier in the year, he teamed up with for a social TV endeavor that will allow viewers to upload 15-second videos of themselves which will air on Youtoo TV. Later in the year, he partnered with tech company ACTV8 on a venture that will allow mobile users to interact with TV content in real time.

Another major business move for Burnett saw the Survivor and The Apprentice producer team up with Hearst Corp., which also owns a stake in A+E Networks, on a joint venture that will see the two team up on assorted media, production and events-based projects. Hearst acquired a “substantial” interest in Burnett’s existing production business as part of the deal. BW

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